It’s time for commercial drones to dominate the BVLOS market
As the drone industry moves closer to widespread Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) adoption, a whole new set of potential applications is being opened for commercial UAV operations. Manufacturers and service providers looking to create a new platform to serve long-distance drone applications, such as delivery, precision agriculture, or inspection, should be planning their design and development so that they can hit the market when the time is right. This mini-guide lays out how to plan the perfect SWaP (size, weight, and power) strategy for your platform, allowing you to balance between payload and airtime.
Drone platform design components
A new drone platform design will typically need a wide variety of components to be specified. These may include:
The flight computer – keeps your drone in the air and handles navigation, autonomous operation, and a whole host of other potential operations.
Detect-and-avoid (DAA) system – an essential safety component for BVLOS operations and one of the deciding factors in certification.
C2 (command & control) communications and data link – another critical component for BVLOS certification, as regulators need to be assured that your drone data communication is reliable and maintains connectivity at close to 100% of the operation time.
Payloads such as cameras and sensors – highly specific to your particular use case
Rotors, electronic speed controllers, and other propulsion elements
All of these added up can lead to a significant drain on your battery and thus to a severe limitation on your drone flight time!
Regulatory aspects of SWaP
As we will detail shortly, thanks to the powerful combination of cloud computing and a secure, reliable drone datalink, you can do away with the need for certain onboard components and shave off some of your SWaP footprint. But what are the “must-have” components for BVLOS drone operations – the ones you can’t get rid of?
While regulations will differ from country to country and region to region, we can use the rules set out by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a guide to figure out what onboard hardware is likely to be essential for a BVLOS drone design.
Unmanned aviation in the United States is governed by the FAA’s Part 107 rules. Under normal circumstances, these rules dictate that drones must be flown within visual line of sight. However, waivers can be granted that allow drone operators to deviate from this rule and perform BVLOS operations. Applications for this waiver must be accompanied by a robust and extremely thorough safety case, proving that the platform and its operations will not endanger aircraft, people or property.
The safety case needs to highlight the drone platform’s solutions to a number of operational issues. These solutions may involve essential hardware components.
Providing visibility at all times
Many drone platforms around the world now need to adhere to Remote ID requirements, which involve the broadcasting of real-time information such as serial number, location and altitude, velocity, time mark, and emergency status. The broadcast capability may be built directly into the system, and older drones can be retrofitted by means of an approved add-on module.
To provide accurate information on these parameters, the drone must also have an onboard GPS receiver and barometric sensor. There is currently no single standard for the broadcasting of Remote ID information, and in the United States, any wireless method can be used as long as an FCC (Federal Communications Commission) broadcast license is not required.
Read more about Remote ID requirements for drones and the benefits to the industry.
Detecting cooperative and non-cooperative aircraft
Many of the use cases for BVLOS drones will require them to operate within the same airspace as other aircraft, both manned and unmanned. As highlighted in the previous section, unmanned aircraft that are complying with Remote ID regulations will provide visibility in this manner. Many manned aircraft also provide location information via ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast). An ADS-B receiver may thus be essential for BVLOS drones operating in shared airspace.
In the course of its mission, a BVLOS drone is also likely to encounter aircraft that do not broadcast essential tracking information. It will also encounter other obstacles such as buildings, powerlines, trees, and other terrain features. The drone must therefore have a reliable solution for detecting all of these and taking evasive action as required.
As with Remote ID, there is no single solution for detect and avoid (DAA), but current technologies include onboard arrays of radar, acoustic, or visual camera sensors. The solution you choose will depend on the SWaP budget of your aircraft, but to satisfy FAA requirements it must have a range of at least three miles, with a 360-degree field of view around the aircraft.
Minimizing your BVLOS drone onboard design with cloud computing
A variety of embedded systems are available that can provide state-of-the-art onboard artificial intelligence, machine vision, and deep learning for any robotics application you can think of. However, sophisticated algorithms and intensive processing are extremely power-hungry, and such systems may not be an option for smaller drones with a low SWaP budget.
Another option is to allow someone else’s computers to do the work for you. If you have the bandwidth and the latency, a lot of tasks commonly undertaken by onboard components can be offloaded to the cloud via the drone’s datalink. These tasks can include image and sensor data processing for essential functions such as autonomous navigation, detect-and-avoid, and target identification.
In today’s world, where cloud computing is highly accessible, a dedicated server room is no longer needed on-site for many offices and other business premises. Similarly, we can take advantage of this idea for drones with challenging SWaP budgets. The cloud infrastructure, combined with updated communication methods, will play an essential role in the shift towards greater autonomous operations, providing drones with the computing power they need at a distance from where they flying.
Designing your drone to take advantage of this data offloading and analysis paradigm will minimize the number of required components onboard the aircraft, which in return will reduce not only the power drain but also the overall cost and complexity of the design.
BVLOS drone connectivity – the missing key
To date, this offloading approach has been relatively uncommon. This is partially due to the relative infancy of scaled-up commercial drone operations, the ever-changing industry, and its methodologies. Crucially, another factor has been the availability of reliable drone connectivity solutions on the market.
A number of different communications protocols can be used for drone data links. For BVLOS drones, the most appropriate methods are likely to involve cellular bonding. In many areas this currently means 3G or 4G, as 5G coverage and maturation of the technology for drone applications both still have a way to go.
A datalink solution that relies on a single link will not be sufficient. Drones operating BVLOS are likely to pass through a range of different communications environments, with black spots where particular providers and protocols cannot be accessed. This is obviously going to result in unreliable communications, safety issues and in turn, a firm “no” from the regulators.
Choose the right partners for your BVLOS drone
One often-overlooked step in the development process is selecting the right manufacturer to partner with for the duration of your product’s lifecycle. It is easy to be tempted by low component prices, but an ideal relationship with a manufacturing partner does not stop at the point of sale. It is worth taking the time to partner with a company that will support you as your business grows and help you out as your drone platform evolves to keep up with the changing market.
It is also worth selecting manufacturers with extensive experience in supplying UAV-specific industries. This is especially crucial when it comes to satisfying regulators and meeting certification requirements – as regulations and methodologies for BVLOS drone operations begin to solidify, a knowledgeable manufacturing partner will be able to offer specific integration advice and may even be able to modify a COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) item to meet your needs.
Partner with Elsight for reliable command, control, and communications
A strong, reliable command and control (C2) link is a must for safe BVLOS operations. While the DAA system can help mitigate risk in the event of a C2 link outage, operators still need to be able to maintain full control over the drone for as much of the mission time as possible, and also need to be alerted right away if damage or equipment malfunction has occurred. A robust drone communications link is also required if you wish to take advantage of cloud computing services and offload task processing in order to reduce power drain and lower your SWaP footprint.
Elsight’s Halo platform provides an all-in-one solution to all your BVLOS command, control, and communications needs. Aggregating multiple cellular links from multiple providers and networks, it allows you to ensure critical redundancy and to choose link priority according to your mission requirements. Additionally, all available links can be securely combined via powerful cellular bonding, providing the ability to maximize bandwidth for data-intensive streaming video.
Halo’s operator-agnostic hardware features a small form factor, lightweight and power consumption of less than half that of an average kitchen lightbulb. With a single device covering everything you need, including built-in Remote ID and 5G compatibility, Halo provides the ultimate in SWaP savings for onboard communications as well as the best chance for satisfying regulators.
As more and more systems and component manufacturers enter the drone market, identifying the right solutions and the right partners to minimize your time to market becomes more and more vital. While you can figure everything out yourself, the right partner can help you plan your on- and off-board components and elements of your methodology, shaving off development times and resource expenditure and allowing you to focus more resources on your core competencies.
With deep insights and experience in drone communications and systems design and extensive involvement in the emerging BVLOS markets, Elsight can help you every step of the way in creating a commercial BVLOS drone platform that will enable you to scale your business without breaking the SWaP bank.